REBECCA WOODHEAD ON THE WRITING LIFE
1.) What do you write?
I am writing a novel series called The Cotswold Chronicles are set in a place called The Cotswolds – an idyllic and largely rural part of England. It is also the area where I grew up and to which I have returned. From Shakespeare to JK Rowling, the area within an hour’s drive from where I sit has formed writers with ruthless efficiency for centuries. Natives of the area are sent down the literary mines from an early age. Newcomers are similarly implicated in the whole sordid literary business. There is something in the water. Resistance is futile. There is so much to write about for a start. Every quaint English cliché you can imagine plays out within its borders. You can’t swing a polo mallet without knocking out a member of the royal family or a major celebrity. All is not as it seems, however, and it’s that not-as-it-seems-ness that I like to play with in my novels.
2.) Do you have definite writing goals?
Absolutely! The deadline I set myself for my annual first draft is Valentine’s Day morning. The romance in my novels is important so Valentine’s Day seems appropriate. It also means that I go into Valentine’s Day with a sense of accomplishment, so my husband doesn’t have to try too hard to make me smile – a cheap card and a nice cup of tea and I am a happy woman. If nothing else, it is a useful budgetary exercise. The day before, or morning of, Valentine’s Day I finish my first draft, type ‘the end’ (just to confirm it for myself) and, before rushing off to hug my hubby, I sketch out the plan for the next book. It always buzzes the loudest at that point so I make sure to get that buzz on paper.
3.) What does Rebecca Woodhead's writing life look like?
It depends on the season. After Valentine’s Day I take some time off, have a birthday and chill out. My writing year starts in March. The spring and summer are about preparation, editing and ‘business.’ I focus on things like editing the first draft of the last novel; planning the next novel; researching agents and publishers and, of course, platform building. Over the last couple of months that has translated to a lot of time online! During this part of the writing process, little ‘brain elves’ are throwing ideas I came up with in February backwards and forwards. As summer moves into autumn, they invade my sleep and I start to dream about my characters. That is when I know the story is ripe enough to be written down.
The actual writing process for me is just letting the story out of my brain. I learnt the importance of this at University, where I studied English. One lecturer spoke to us about the gaps in our timetable and explained that we were given a lot of time between lectures and seminars for a reason. The reason, it turned out, was not so that we could go to parties but so that we could think. He said that literature needed to be mulled over and that as much of the comprehension of literature took place in the mulling over of it as happened in the reading and learning about it. Although my course was about the academic comprehension of literature that had already been created, I think the same is true when you are the one doing the creating. The oft-quoted ‘writing is re-writing’ is fair enough but I would take it one step further and say that much of writing is mulling.
When I write, however, I write like a thing possessed. I am at my desk – or at my computer in my bed if I am not well – by eight in the morning and I write for as long as I have energy to, every day. I take the odd Sunday off from the actual process of writing but the brain elves are still tapping away. Real life does not exist while I write. The world of my characters is my reality until the first draft is finished. Typically, I light a Yankee Candle – usually coffee or some take on the coffee idea – switch on my computer and disappear into the story. I load my MP3 player with all kinds of different music and play the music relevant to each part of the emotional arc. A couple of candles later I have a first draft.
4.) Your recent HUGE win as Ms. Twitter UK took a lot of concentrated work and effort. Can you tell us about that experience, and the platform(s) you incorporated to get votes?
It was exhausting! Ms Twitter UK is a contest to find the most popular female user of Twitter in the UK. In one of the guest blogs I did for Booktrust (the people who administer the Orange Prize for Fiction) I described it as ‘X Factor with avatars.’ The trickiest thing about the competition is that you don’t merely compete against ‘normal’ people; you compete against celebrities with fan clubs and PR machines.
As I didn’t have celebrity credentials, and was a good decade older than most of the finalists, I played to my strengths and did ‘literary stand-up’ for votes. This involved writing haiku, six word stories etc – and translating medieval poetry – to demand and against the clock. I had no idea how taxing it would be but it was also great fun. Before long, I had a slogan -- ‘The pen is mightier than the pin-up’ and a large following of literary types - readers, authors, publishers, librarians etc – supporting my bid.
During all the chats we had about literature, a number of issues emerged and I decided to focus my campaign on these issues rather than me as a person. To cut a long story short, as I termed myself a ‘word nerd,’ the collective noun for my followers became the ‘Word Nerd Army.’ This ‘army’ was not only on Twitter. Some members were on Blogger, others were on FaceBook, others still were people who stumbled upon the Ms Twitter contest and liked what I stood for.
When I won, I set up WordNerdArmy for everyone who voted for me as a place for the issues on which they voted. It is also for anyone unconnected with the competition who agrees with the need to do something positive about issues such as: literacy, healthy self-image, and library funding.
5.) Tells us a few things about the importance of social networking.
Many years ago, I ran a networking club in the ‘real world.’ I was fed up with the networking clubs where you wore a badge and desperately launched attacks on people who might help you, so my club was about having fun. If you did business as a consequence that was great but if you didn’t then at least you met some interesting people. I was amazed at the amount of business that was achieved by people just having fun. It made much more sense to me than the endless, fruitless meetings I was forced to attend.
Social networking online works the same way. It works on the basis that people are just people. You end up speaking to people you ‘click’ with and after a while you forget their job title. Some of my best online friends are publishers or celebrities but I forget this. I think the best way to approach ‘social networking’ is to start out with an idea of who you’d like to meet (publishers etc); follow them and then forget who they are. Give yourself a good few months to become friends with people just because they interest you. Ignore the extent to which they may be able to help you.
After that, draw up a plan and go through your new chums, re-acquainting yourself with their job titles, to find out which of them actually could help. At that point you will know where it would be appropriate to ask and where it would not. Some of your new friends won’t be able to help or won’t be interested in helping at this time – just as in real life – but that doesn’t mean they are not friends. You can still have fun with them and swap stories. There is an agent online, for example, that rejected me last year but who still follows me and I send writers across to this agent because the agent is a great person. The fact that my work didn’t fit with their list is no reason for me to get all cross. The process of being turned down by them was actually quite pleasant, with lots of positive feedback and encouragement. We aspiring authors need more agents who turn down that well!
Taking this approach on Twitter was an odd experience at first, because I discovered a number of my ‘dream people’ – those I thought would be of most use to my career – annoyed me. I found them arrogant, boring, unprofessional and rude. I imagined a world in which they represented my work and I shuddered. Had I not attempted to get to know them I would never have discovered this. Of course, the opposite is also true. I now have lists of publishers, for example, with whose marketing departments I am already on great terms, and others who don’t publish my genre but are happy to give me advice on dealing with agents or publishers, or just general advice on writing. I have done the groundwork to make the job of whichever agent eventually takes me on much easier than would otherwise be the case.
6.) Advice for new writers?
My advice to new writers would be of limited use, as I’m not yet published, so I will borrow the advice of a good chum of mine – Jamie Ford. He is a New York Times best-selling author so I trust his judgement. When I interviewed him recently (interview is on my blog) he said:
“Enjoy the struggle. Don’t be discouraged––it’s part of the process of growing as a writer...”
I like that advice. As a coma survivor who had to learn to speak and write from scratch at age eleven, I understand the struggle to have your voice heard more than most. For me, the triumph is there in the words. The acknowledgement of my accomplishment comes from inside. Praise from the outside world is a bonus. Everyone who manages to struggle through a first draft and type the words ‘the end’ is already a triumphant writer and should take pride in that huge accomplishment.
The challenge for all of us beyond that point is to become the best writers that we can and to find a market for that writing. My advice would be to take Jamie’s words to heart and also to take your writing seriously enough to put in the other work – research and platform building for example – that improve your chances of getting that work seen. Mr Ford is already a New York Times best-selling author but does he close his door on the world with a smug grin and write or does he break his back promoting his work? What do you think? By the way, if anyone knows of a good chiropractor, I’m sure Jamie would appreciate their number.
In short: writers read; mull; write; re-write; promote, and enjoy the struggle. Some writers also get published but that’s the icing on the literary cake.
7.) How do you stay motivated to work on your ms and other projects?
It matters to me too much not to stay motivated. I think most fiction writers are good at staying motivated because we like a good story.
‘Coma survivor becomes poor and starves to death in misery without anyone seeing her work,’ doesn’t sound as good to me as: ‘Coma survivor laughs in face of poverty, becomes best-selling author, and inspires others to do likewise.’
I am motivated to make my own story as good as I can. I can handle ambiguity in fiction but I’m a sucker for a ‘happily ever after’ in real life.
8.) The biggest writing mistake you ever made?
Trying too hard to be clever. My first attempt at a novel had such a convoluted narrative structure that I had to plot it out on sheets of taped together A4 with different coloured pens and explanatory notes. I took it to an English professor who confirmed I may have invented a new genre – so it was a triumph for my cleverness – but one look at him and I knew he was holding back the words: “…that nobody will ever read.”
With the novels I have written over the last couple of years, I still put in little nuggets for English graduates to pick up if they feel so inclined but these are not crucial to understanding the plot. The most important thing for me with these books is that they tell great stories and that people love the characters.
9.) I know you're gonna thump me, but please tell us about your Pennies for Ink & Postage fund.
Grr! Well, I am currently utterly impoverished due to ill health and can’t afford ink and postage. In England, this is a problem. Agents only accept hard copy. After much badgering from followers, I set up a ‘Pennies for Ink and Postage’ fund so that I stand a better chance of being published. All pennies donated will go towards ink and postage and I will take the buttons down once I have enough. There is a button on my blog and there is also one on the Word Nerd Army blog. I don’t have far to go now until I can send off my manuscript.
10.) What didn't I ask that you want blogging reader/writers to know?
The only thing I can think of is that The Word Nerd Army is brand new and a bit follower-poor at the moment, which is a shame as publishers and journalists are very excited by it. I would love a few more bloggers to follow the blog and get involved by picking one or more of the issues and blogging about them. I plan to send out letters to politicians about these issues so the more blog posts about them; the more comments on the Word Nerd Army blog, and the more followers there are the better chance of getting policy changed. At the moment I am looking for a new ‘Word Nerd Knight of the Month’ for next month – you can nominate yourself or a friend and either gender can become a knight. All the details are on the blog.
Thanks for taking time out to do the interview Rebecca!
Thanks for interviewing me Angie.